Will America’s shale boomtowns bust? A report from the heart of North Dakota’s fracking country
Photographs by George Steinmetz
We’re standing on a windswept, snow-covered expanse of frozen ground in western North Dakota, imagining a future that is hard to picture here. Gesturing toward a grassy field, hatless in the 10-degree chill, Terry Olin and Ellen Simone Weyrauch, the principals of a real estate development firm called Stropiq, lay out their vision for Williston Crossing. They’ve planned a $500 million, 219-acre complex with 900 residential units, a hotel, a water park, and tons of big-box retail. As soon as Stropiq gets the expected approval from the county, it will break ground later this year and hopes to finish the first phase of construction by 2018.
Just 10 years ago the area was an American Empty Quarter, with nothing but a few grain farms and the occasional oil well, conjoined by the lonely two-lane U.S. Route 85, part of the CanAm Highway that connects Mexico to Canada. But then came an oil boom propelled by the advent of fracking, the technology for getting oil out of formerly impenetrable rock by fracturing it. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, oil once considered irretrievable flowed freely.
Now, as Olin and Weyrauch gaze down at Route 85—soon to be four lanes—from their site, they see all the signs of a roaring economy: tankers loaded with oil, trucks piled high with pipe, and new SUVs. Nearby sit several pump jacks, pulling oil all day and all night from the shale thousands of feet below. Olin, who made his money developing property in Russia, sees the Bakken area as one of the best opportunities in the world. He has moved here from Switzerland to make it happen. “This has become the best emerging-market play anywhere,” he raves.
In August 2013, Williston, N.D., erected a sign at the entrance to town. Welcome, it reads, to Boomtown, U.S.A. That’s understating things. There are now about 40,000 people living here, up from 12,000 less than a decade ago. They have come from all over the world to find work, in the time-honored tradition of the gold rush. For years jobs went begging, with some of the highest wages in the country. At the end of 2014, Williston’s unemployment rate was 1.0%, the lowest in the U.S. Given those statistics, it is logical that Olin and Weyrauch would want to invest in a place so starved for commerce that the local Wal-Mart—one of the chain’s highest-volume locations—used to routinely run out of basic supplies.
Then came the swoon. After reaching a 12-month high of $108 last summer, U.S. benchmark petroleum prices have dramatically declined, to a price now hovering near $50 per barrel. That has shaken global markets and energy companies alike, causing oil producers to slash their capital expenditure budgets and announce layoffs. The situation will only worsen if the low prices persist.
That’s particularly true in North Dakota, where oil is costlier to get at than in many other parts of the world. The causes for the collapse include basic supply and demand—the slowdown in China’s economy combined with the surge in U.S. oil production—abetted by Saudi Arabia’s decision not to restrict supply in hopes that it will retain market share and cause a shakeout among less cost-effective sources of oil.
You’d think all that would be enough to create panic in a place like Williston, where most jobs directly or indirectly depend on oil. And yet over the course of several days spent in the area, speaking with everyone from developers like Olin to restaurant servers to energy CEOs to oilfield workers to public administrators, I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance: an insistence that nothing has changed, combined with hardheaded determination and an undercurrent of fear.
“This is not your father’s oil boom,” says David Montgomery, a commissioner of Williams County, which includes Williston. He has lived here his whole life and believes that the area has seen so much growth that even a slowdown won’t halt the vast infrastructure needs. Others, such as Scott Busching, the sheriff of Williams County, see what’s happening as merely a “lull,” one not so dissimilar from most winters, when the economy slows because the ground freezes to a depth of six feet, making many tasks impossible. “This boom’s got legs,” he says.
Olin, the developer, says he’s undeterred by recent events: “Should we stop and wait until [the price of oil] is $60? Is there some scenario in which it makes no sense? I think not.” He insists that his investors remain confident. But if they get nervous, Williston Crossing will likely never be built.
Today Williston conveys the sense of a place willing itself forward. Some think plenty of bonanzas are still to be made. Others rue the boom and wish it had never happened. It feels a bit like Wile E. Coyote in the seconds after he has run off the edge of a cliff and is suspended in air. Will this be the first time he makes it back to the high ground without plunging?
The price of oil feels beside the point when you see the prairie from 1,000 feet, flying in a four-seat Cessna. Rigs dot the Williston horizon; natural gas not valuable enough to be captured burns orange in open flames. Trucks speed down the highway. Trailer parks, neatly arrayed in rectangles on white stretches of snow, are plentiful—as are half-finished housing complexes. A depot for freight cars looks like a child’s train set, with so many cars ready for loading that they almost cover the entire circular track.
Back on the ground, everyone seems to know the rig count—how many drills are digging for new oil—whether he works in the oil patch or not. It’s hard not to know the number: It’s printed on the front page of the local paper, the Williston Herald, every day. In June 2012 that number peaked at 203; during my five days there it dropped from 145 to 137. A week after I left it was 126.
Still, that has done nothing to dampen the scene at the Williston Brewing Co., one of the town’s hottest new restaurants. Developed by a Minnesota businessman, it opened in September 2013 to crowds eager to sample “big city” food like jerk chicken and sweet-chile-glazed salmon at its 65-foot redwood bar. Tonight it’s packed with the beneficiaries of the boom, and no one here thinks the party is ending.
One of them is Nyssa Gray, who has cashed in with her Pepto-Bismol-pink drive-through coffee hut, Boomtown Babes Espresso. It’s not just the coffee that gets the truckers to line up and pay $5.50 for a large cappuccino; it’s the scantily clad “babe-a-ristas” inside the shed. Gray, herself a striking ambassador of the brand with her platinum-blond hair and cartoonish figure, came here from Washington State and opened Boomtown Babes in mid-2013. “It blew up bigger than I ever imagined,” she says.
As she sips Goldeneye Pinot Noir and nibbles on a shrimp cocktail, Gray says there’s no sign of a slowdown: Sales in January were up 44% from the year before. Now she’s expanding to other oil centers, including nearby Tioga, and says she is partnering with a production company on a reality show about her operation. What about the slumping price of crude? It’s just a blip, Gray declares. “I’m not going to instantly pack up and move,” she says. “This is my baby—everything I worked so hard for. So heck yeah, I’m gonna ride it out.”
Few people in the Bakken—or anywhere, for that matter—anticipated a slowdown. Just last September the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources published a report projecting that up to 6,000 additional wells could be drilled in McKenzie County, the county adjoining Williams, by 2025. (There are now about 2,700.) In Watford City, about 45 minutes southeast of Williston, the number of building permits doubled between 2013 and 2014, rising from 262 to 511; approved apartment units soared from 89 to 1,152 in just one year. Housing is so scarce that two-bedroom apartments rent for an average of $2,800 a month. Demand has not abated, says Charlie Rader, chief operating officer at McKenzie Building Center, an 80-year-old building-supply company based in Watford City. “We are fully engaged on our projects.”
A few miles away stands the steel skeleton of what will soon become Watford City’s new, $50 million high school. It couldn’t come soon enough for the district, which has seen annual 20% to 25% increases in the number of children. In 2014, between the end of one school year and the start of another, 251 new students registered, raising the total to 1,331. Once mostly local and white, the elementary school now educates natives of 48 states and 20 countries. Some 38% are classified as “homeless,” many because they live in trailers or RVs; rent is simply too high.
Watford City has taken a big financial risk on the school. It is issuing $27 million in bonds and has borrowed millions more. District superintendent Steve Holen is now trying to persuade the state legislature to force the oil industry to cover some of that debt. “We want to see portions of industry pay for this,” he says, “because that’s where the impact has come from.”
Holen understands that a slowdown will probably mean trouble for state budgets—which support schools, of course—because of a state law that lowers oil companies’ extraction taxes on new wells from 6.5% to 2% if the NYMEX average monthly price per barrel falls to $57.50. As of Feb. 1, that trigger was activated, so oil companies won’t have to pay the full 6.5% until the price rises above $72.50. If it remains below $55.09 for five consecutive months (we’re now in month two), the companies will pay no extraction taxes on any wells drilled after 1987, which is to say the vast majority. How dire would that be for the state? Already the North Dakota legislature has slashed its estimates of oil and gas revenues through 2017, from $8.3 billion to $4.3 billion.
Even if oil prices stay low, the Watford City/Williston area may be the last in the region to feel the pain. It is in the “sweet spot” of the Bakken, with the breakeven price for production about $36 a barrel, according to the state. That figure runs as high as $77 in some other parts of North Dakota. Another reason the pain has not yet become apparent is that even as companies slow their rate of drilling, they must still complete the wells they have started—or lose the substantial investment they have already made. Scott Junk, VP for marketing at Target Logistics, which runs three local “man camps” (facilities that provide spartan dormitories and food for the mostly male oilfield workers), says they are running at 90% occupancy. “We haven’t adjusted our business plans at all.”
There’s an old saying that the only people who profit from a gold rush are the ones who sell the picks and shovels. People who use them don’t fare as well. You’ll see that darker picture about 10 miles outside Williston. There a 20-foot bust of Abraham Lincoln watches over traffic from the side of Route 85. To the east is the entrance to the Lincoln RV Park, home to Brad Owren, 29, Christine Stief, 28, and their 17-month-old daughter, McKenzie.
The cold is piercing; the eight trailers remaining at the RV park, each about 10 yards apart, look as if they would huddle together for warmth if they could. It’s impossible to imagine a child playing outside. But it is here that Owren and Stief sit, fretting about their dwindling supply of canned Spaghetti-Os and chicken noodle soup, hoping that a job will come through before their meager savings run out.
An unskilled laborer with a GED, Owren had struggled to make ends meet in Stevenson, Wash. “I searched for work for two years straight,” he says. Then a cousin told him about Williston. “This is a town that’s booming,” he said. “You need to get here right now.”
Owren packed up, left Stief, and moved to Williston in 2012. It seemed like the proverbial land of opportunity. He toiled on a rock-crushing crew, living in a man camp, and saved good money. Lonely, he returned to Stief and their new daughter after a year—but once again couldn’t find a job in Washington. So last August the family moved to North Dakota with $800 in savings. They put a down payment on an $11,000 camper and had it towed to the trailer park. Stief intended to stay home with their daughter, because day care was exorbitant—$250 a week.
But things went sour quickly when the water pipes froze in the camper. Owren took two days off to fix them—he used a hair dryer to thaw the pipes—and says he was fired as a result. “[My boss] told me I was replaceable,” Owren says, “and I understand that. But my family comes first.”
His layoff coincided with the fall in oil prices. He hasn’t found work since. “I have always been a positive person,” says Stief. “But being here is the first time I have ever asked myself if there is an end in sight.” They’ve resolved to stick it out; in mid-February, Stief took a job as a restaurant hostess, although it barely covers day care. Even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t. They don’t have access to a truck that can pull their trailer. “The first time I was here I could have a different job every day if I wanted to,” Owren says. “Now I can’t find an equipment-operating job. That’s unheard-of in North Dakota. But there’s hope. There’s always hope.”
So much feels transient in Williston. There doesn’t seem to be a single local inside a packed Buffalo Wild Wings grill—90% of the patrons are male—on Super Bowl Sunday. My waitress, for example, comes from Zimbabwe. Over a couple of tequila shots, I get to know Jimmy Hand, a ginger-haired 29-year-old from Jacksonville. “I was going to go to Alaska and work on a crab boat,” he says, “but then I heard about this place on a talk radio show.” He came by train about a year ago, he says, with $20 and two changes of clothes. He was lured by a Craigslist posting that promised construction jobs for $27 an hour, a huge sum for someone with only a high school education and no specialized experience.
By the time Hand arrived, the offer had dropped to $17. He stayed but soon learned that getting rich wasn’t easy. “I didn’t know the cost of living,” he says. “You’d spend $20 for a meal and not even be full.” Even before crude prices dropped, he says, it became hard to find unskilled work. He’s leaving for Florida that night on a four-day bus ride but insists he’ll be back. “There’s definitely still an opportunity here,” Hand says. “You just have to be smart.”
Even many of those who are succeeding seem to have no intention of staying. One example is Danny Hogan, a Brit and the group COO of NDD Group, which owns the Great American Lodge, a man camp. He lives here several weeks, then goes back to someplace else—in his case, England—for a week. He says he’d never move his three sons here. (“Would you?” he asks.)
Natives like Ron Sylte are ambivalent. For them the flush times have brought benefits—and harm. A wheat farmer in Tyrone, a few miles outside Williston, Sylte discovered on Jan. 6 that the state’s largest-ever spill of brine water—the salty, contaminated water pumped back out of the well after fracking—had occurred on his property, leaking at least 3 million gallons into the earth so far, as well as into the Black Tail Creek, which eventually flows into the Missouri.
A photographer and I arrived at the spill site on Feb. 2. Representatives of Summit Midstream LLC, the company responsible for the spill, instructed us to get off the property, even though the land belongs to Sylte, not Summit. “Call this number,” we were told; it was that of a crisis-communications firm. Summit later provided a statement that it is “committed to North Dakota,” including the “clean-up and remediation of the produced water release … We are making significant progress in these efforts, and remain fully committed to addressing the impacted land and waterways as quickly as possible.”
A few days later we returned, thanks to Sylte, a gentle, mustachioed man whose previous brush with the media occurred when Farm Progress reported that his agricultural sprayer is the world’s biggest. We watched as an excavator dug shovelful after shovelful of dirty, icy soil out of the creek. The refuse was dumped into a pile some 15 feet high, while trucks continued to pump liquid out. When we asked if there was oil in the water, a man in a blue hazmat suit pointed downward: “Do you see that iridescent sheen here?”
Sylte is worried. He says he won’t really know the impact of the spill until the ground thaws later this spring; a smaller spill in the area is still being cleaned up, nine years after it started. When asked how he feels about what fracking has brought, Sylte is silent for a while. “We’ve benefited from the boom,” he says finally, referring to the mineral rights he holds on his land. “But way of life? I’m not so sure. We were happy the way it was before.”
So, too, was Williams County sheriff Scott Busching, who has held the position for 17 years. The last several, he says, have been more like policing in a large city than a small town. “Whatever you have in New York City you have here,” he says. “The same kinds of drugs, the same kinds of gang members.” Heroin turned up last year, he says. “We weren’t prepared.” In 2009 the county opened a new jail, with 132 beds, to replace a previous facility that could house 37. Today there are 156 inmates—so many that closets and rooms once used for GED classes are being used as cells. Prisoners doze on dirty mats on the ground. Many eat sitting on the floor because there aren’t enough tables. Busching says the courts are so backed up that they are now scheduling jury trials for the spring of 2017. At least the heat works.
From a law-enforcement perspective, Busching says, it doesn’t matter whether crude prices quickly rebound. “If oil comes back, we get more people and more crime,” he says. “If it doesn’t and people lose their jobs, it’s going to get busier.” Busching says thefts have jumped of late, but he says it’s hard to glean the cause. He can’t even calculate a local crime rate because so many people move here without changing their address that it’s impossible to determine the population.
Certain industries, of course, may be largely immune to a slowdown. At the Heartbreakers strip club in downtown Williston, owner Jared Holbrook was focused on reopening after his club (and Whispers, right next door) was temporarily shuttered for various violations, including fighting and underage drinking. “This is a great place to do business,” he says with a chuckle. “Everybody in the city wants to be here at the club.” He sees no reason to pull out.
In mid-February the Williston Herald predicted there would be no major oil-company layoffs in the short term, though there were a lot of references to “efficiencies.” For all the bravado, a few don’t conceal their anxiety. “There’s a sense of panic,” says James Stumpp, originally of Tallahassee, who runs a completion rig and says he’s been through busts in other states. “About three weeks ago our managers told us to start saving.” His wife was planning to join him this summer, but now he’s not sure if she should come.
Denishia Bradshaw, a secretary who arrived a year ago with her husband, an oilfield worker from Virginia Beach, says 10 people have already been laid off at his company. If things don’t change by May, she says they told him, there will be “drastic cuts.” Even kids are feeling the stress, it seems. “One thing we have noticed is a lot more tummy aches,” says Brenda Herland, principal of the Garden Valley elementary school.
What will happen in three years? Will there be a festive opening of Williston Crossing? Olin is looking forward to it, but others aren’t so sure. Joshua Stansbury, captain of the local Salvation Army, says the need for social services is growing rapidly, as people either show up and can no longer find easy work or lose the work they had. “We used to see 20-some people in a week,” he says. “Now we see 20 or more in a day.”
There’s no homeless shelter, so the organization has been buying some people one-way bus tickets out of Williston. “The idea is not just to get people out of here,” Stansbury says. It’s simply the most humane choice. “Maybe,” he says, “it’s just best for some of them to go back home.”
This story is from the March 1, 2015 issue of Fortune.